Understand the power of positive protest

By Stefan Herlitz

(Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)
(Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)

However you get your information – be it from the news, newspapers, magazines, blogs, Facebook posts or just via word-of-mouth – it doesn’t take an expert to notice the political sphere as a whole is an overflowing fountain of hate. Whether they are liberals who hate conservatives, tea partiers who hate “socialists” or simply bystanders who hate the whole system, when people think about politics, the thought is rarely unaccompanied with disdain or hostility toward another.

As college students, we are by and large the foot soldiers of political activism everywhere. We are the volunteers, the campus advocates, the petitioners, the campaign fellows and the protesters. We are the door-knockers, the phone bankers and the social media bloggers. We hold strongly to our beliefs and work hard to spread them. As such, we often organize mass movements and rallies, events which seek to thrust our views into the public eye in order to bring about change.

However, not every movement is created equal. Some movements start with a vision, an idea for a better future, a central tenet around which the movement grows and propagates. Such movements inspire us, and seek to spread these new ideas in order to bring about positive change in our society by replacing systems we deem unjust or outdated. Some of these movements, like the 1963 Great March on Washington, have proudly trumpeted specific legislative reforms for historically marginalized groups – others, like the University Massachusetts’ own UMass United rally held this past spring, are large, public declarations of support for human rights and respect for one another.

Other movements, however, start not with a vision, but an enemy. These movements seek to eliminate or destroy aspects of society with which they find fault. They dedicate themselves to the task of tearing these systems down. Such movements are based in anger, which is simultaneously one of the strongest and weakest of human emotions. Anger rapidly rouses people, draws a line in the sand and provides an easy battle cry for activists. Unlike the necessarily nuanced platforms of the aforementioned positive movements, the platforms of opposition movements are incredibly simple. They are easy to organize, easy to understand and easy to advertise. However, they are also easy to ignore and let die.

Occupy Wall Street was a mass protest against socioeconomic inequality and corporate greed that began on Sept. 17, 2011, in Zuccotti Park, New York City, and rapidly spread to cities around the globe. It united the voices of millions in denouncing the system that allowed income inequality to rise and corporate influence to spread unchecked; it blasted the banks and businesses of Wall Street as greedy, corrupt and innately hostile to the common good. It loudly launched the issues of socioeconomic inequality to the world stage and dominated news coverage across the globe, but failed in the most important aspect of protest: it failed to specify what it actually wanted.

That is the weakness of movements based on anger: they try to tear down parts of society without knowing what to build in their place. Sure, Occupy Wall Street wanted an end to income inequality, but how? This is one of many questions that toppled the movement, which was united around a common hatred of the system, but quickly fell into disarray when asked what should be done to fix it. (In fact, numerous elements within OWS specifically opposed setting demands.)

Even the largest, most powerful and well-organized army will fall apart if it argues within itself as to what victory even means, yet time and again some protest movements are too busy decrying the current system to provide a vision for its replacement. In our burning desire to enact change on the real world, we latch on to certain ideas and principles and draw mental battle lines separating political “allies” from “enemies.” We manufacture a conflictual world in which we fight against an enemy hell bent on pursuing evil, and we pick a side, completely accepting this utterly ridiculous imaginary war as reality.

People tend to believe they are right, and that their beliefs are what are best for everyone. I’d say very few think of themselves as villains actively pursuing injustice, which is why movements that rage against individuals, persons or systems fail to bring about any sort of change unless they have clear proposals or demands. No protester will ever successfully convince someone they are a terrible human being because of their beliefs (regardless of the veracity of said claim), but it is entirely possible for proponents of change to convince society of the benefits of their plan and win those who were previously “enemies” over to their side.

In the end, we must remember that positive change only comes about when citizens who disagree come together and forge a better tomorrow. While defeating an enemy may be satisfying, such is impossible in our society in which everyone is free voice their opinions. In civil society, the only road leading to success is paved with specific demands, persuasion and compromise – not anger.

Stefan Herlitz is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]